The Monday ‘Joe: The Price of Games

The Monday 'Joe

Mondays are usually slow for news as people start to stir for the coming week. Therefore, every Monday, we will address one topic to start the week and get discussion flowing. It stimulates the week like a cup of coffee, hence the title.

There’s enough smoke regarding the next generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft to say there’s a fire: they’re developing new consoles. Nicknamed Orbis and Durango respectively for the time being, the new consoles are going to be significantly more powerful than their predecessors. While reports are flowing as to just what each system will include—no used sales! Account based DRM! Bluray? No Bluray? No drive?—one thing is for certain: development costs are going to rise as the systems become the home of an arms race to see who can make the prettiest games. We already live in a world where games carry nine-figure budgets in some cases, yet the price of games has dropped once inflation is considered. However, with the opposing trends of increased development costs of AAA-developed games and the increase in freemium and mobile gaming, one thing looks clear: the days of the $60 game are coming to an end. It’s just a matter of which direction.

This week’s question:

How much would you be willing to spend for a top-flight game? Do you prefer to pay a premium price for everything up front, or do you prefer to buy a là carte via microtransactions and freemium models?

Aileen Coe: Given the option, I’d want everything up front so I’d pay more for that. Though in the era of DLC, I should probably say I’d pay for the core experience or at least something that would feel complete even if I didn’t go for the DLC. $60 is basically my limit unless it’s some special limited edition with a bunch of extras. Even then, I don’t really buy games often as is, and if prices go up further for just the regular edition of a game, that frequency would fall even more at least until a sale or price drop. Given how crowded release schedules can get at times, sales would drop with a higher base price point because people wouldn’t be able to spread their cash that thin. If rumors about account-based DRM or no used games or so on pan out, even those might fall by the wayside.

The freemium model looks good on the surface in a Yay, I can play this for free! sense. However, oftentimes with games falling within that model, the microtransactions can feel like nickel and diming. In those cases, progress through the game is either blocked by a pay wall to unlock more levels, or money or items require a ton of time consuming grinding to the point where trying to earn those things through gameplay instead of plunking down cash feels prohibitive. I don’t think the freemium model is intrinsically bad, but if the microtransactions seem compulsory, like having to keep buying berries in The Smurfs’ Village, I lose interest fast. Given the increasing popularity of such games, though, more companies may try to tap into that for a guaranteed cash flow, in which case… well, I do have a huge backlog.

Nathan Wood: First, let me begin by saying that in Australia, $60 games simply don’t exist. Unfortunately, a new game at retail generally sets you back about $100, maybe $90 if you’re lucky. It makes very little sense to me and turns gaming into a very expensive hobby. So let me start off by saying that I don’t think retail game costs will really rise over here. Actually, I hope they don’t because it would be ridiculous, to be honest. It’s because of this that I purchase most of my games from the likes of eBay or Amazon, as the prices there are a lot closer to the $60 mark seen elsewhere. So when I’m asked how much I would be willing to spend for a triple-A title in the future, the truth is I’m not really comfortable or happy with the current pricing of titles in retail in today’s market. If game prices continue to rise and reach the $110-$120—for a stock standard edition, not the “Limited” or “Special” editions—the industry will see a lot less sales.

If given a choice, I would much rather to pay for everything upfront except for genuine DLC packs that extend the story like the Fallout 3 and New Vegas DLC packs. I, as well as many others, despise on-disc DLC (I see you, Capcom). I don’t see how a publisher can justify selling a product at full price when the product itself is shipped “unfinished” unless you pony up even more money on top of the original price. Only the game industry has a system like this in place that they can get away with, and really, the problem needs to be be dealt with. As for freemium models, I’m all for them if implemented correctly and don’t fall into the pay-to-win problem that a lot of these titles tend to do. I’d still much rather go with the traditional payment method, but it does provide another avenue for developers that can be explored.

Mohamed Al Saadoon: $60 is what I’m willing to pay for a game, no more than that.

I don’t give a fuck how much games cost to make these days. All we hear about is how the game industry is breaking sales and entertainment records, yet publishers continue to act like poor knights of Christ and claim that pirates and used-game buyers are sucking their hard-earned money like some sort of financial vampires.

I don’t buy it. The games industry has the tools to monetize games well after release as well as eliminate packaging and shipping costs with digital distribution platforms like the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, and Steam but stubbornly refuse to do so. This charges me in New Zealand $100 USD for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 on Steam for no reason other than that’s what I have to pay in-store.

In an era where music and movies are getting cheaper for the consumer despite ballooning budgets, the video game industry continues to be the odd man out despite boasting about beating the opening gross of major blockbuster movies every time a new CoD title comes out. It might help that a movie ticket doesn’t cost $60.

If free or freemium games ever became the mainstream, I’ll probably leave video gaming as a hobby. Those titles end up being more expensive in total than regular $60 AAA titles and often offer unfair advantages to players that pay, the aforementioned pay-to-win strategy. Very few games get this model right.

I’m getting older and am already having trouble justifying my expensive “childish” hobby to everyone around me, so what else can I do if gaming becomes more expensive and I get more obligations as the years pass?

M. Ngai: I’m already leery of the $60 price tag for a regular video game, so making that go higher would just exacerbate that feeling. My spending habits on this front have already become sparse precisely because of these increased prices, so I’d really prefer they didn’t go up in the next generation. As someone who still kind of prefers the old go-to-the-store method of buying a game, whatever I’m looking for better be damn worth those $60 I’m about to spend. This is the main reason why, if I do go shopping for a game, I go in knowing what I want.

I know I’d be pretty annoyed with that pay-to-win pitfall mentioned above, which is part of the reason why I don’t bother looking into the freemium stuff (the other part is a general disinterest in online gaming). Compared to that, I much prefer paying for a digital copy of a game since it’s pretty much like buying a game in a store without actually going to the store. I also don’t have to worry about where I’m going to put the packaging afterwards since there won’t be any, and I can decide whether or not I want the DLC. But the bottom line here is that I don’t see myself being all too willing to pay more than $60 for a video game.

Christopher Bowen: One thing that’s important to note: in 2012, the cost of a top-flight video game is $60. In 1988, it was $50; and in 1983, it was $35. Those prices would be $91 and $78, respectively, in 2010 figures. So realistically speaking, if you’re looking simply at inflation, the cost of games have gone down since the glory days of the 80s, which could theoretically justify an increase in price to $70 or $80.

If that happens, the games industry—particularly the AAA market—will end up cannibalizing itself.

Simply put, there’s a lot more for consumers to spend their money on today, and a lot more ways they can spend their time, many of them either free or included in packages, such as hundreds of cable channels. During the 2600 era, there were twelve channels and cable was in its infancy. Even by 1988, basic cable had 13 channels and was in most houses. Today, DirecTV’s base package is 140 channels. Games have to do a lot more than they used to to draw more attention to themselves. Because of this, we’re increasingly getting a case of haves and have-nots, with a few major franchises—Call of Duty, Madden, etc.—being the haves and everyone else fighting for scraps.

Two things will happen. The first is that the base price of a top-flight console game, in the next generation, will go up to $70 ($80 will be seen as unsustainable), with it possibly staying at $60 if purchased digitally. We’re already seeing the second happen: nickel-and-diming via DLC, online passes, microtransactions, and subscription services such as Call of Duty: Elite and EA Sports’ Season Pass. It’s to the point where the compulsory price of a game starts to become limitless, lest the player be brushed aside in favour of the whales. Simply put, AAA publishing is becoming like a freemium service where you actually pay a cover charge.

That’s an unsustainable model. There’s a finite mount of entertainment dollars to be spent, and those dollars are becoming more and more finite as time goes by, the economy tightens, and choices expand. There’s only so much of it to go around, and with these companies reaching for more and more of the pie, that’s going to leave a lot less for other developers—an unsustainable amount. Either way, the effective cost of the games is going up. That hurts because the average gamer is getting older: the people (like me) that grew up on NHL ’94 on the Genesis are playing NHL ’12 on their PS3s; only now, we’re in our thirties, have jobs and kids and businesses to run, and we simply don’t have the disposable income that we used to have. Next hockey season might be the first time I don’t buy a new NHL title of any colour; NHL ’12 is the only game in town, and because all of EA’s efforts are going into Hockey Ultimate Team—their freemium-priced service where you’re screwed if you’re not buying equipment and boosts—there’s no compelling reason to nab next year’s franchise mode. I can’t afford incremental updates anymore; there are other games I can buy, and I have a backlog well past four digits.

Where does that leave consoles? Frankly, I think this is going to be the last dedicated console generation coming up, especially if the rumours of companies going with intrusive, system-integrated DRM to eliminate the second-hand market prove true. Yes, the big blockbuster games will sell, but what about the secondary titles? Imagine running a movie theatre on nothing but Michael Bay movies. You can’t do it. There’s a solid selection of A and AA titles being released now, particularly via digital platforms, but these are on entrenched systems with a dedicated userbase that—this is important—were buying on force of habit a few years ago. The habits, like it or not, have changed because of tablets, mobile, and handheld devices. Simply put, if the price of games increases, either at the door or via DLC, the console industry will eat itself alive. That might not bother Microsoft and Sony too much because they get by on offering entertainment value outside of games, and they can simply bow out of the console market in a few years. However, it will seriously hurt Nintendo, hurt EA and Activision, and devastate THQ (if they’re still around by then) and others like them.

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Gaming Bus Staff

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The Gaming Bus staff consists of some of the brightest minds to enter the field of games journalism, bringing perspectives from all over the world and from all genres.